It's a shame the televised debates leading up to an election mostly include all remaining candidates, rather than just the ones you truly want to see. There's no choosing opponents from a menu like Mortal Kombat. Instead, viewers usually sit through a whole questionably moderated debate to get to a few fleeting moments of the most interestingly matched candidates sparring with each other. Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders may or may not make it far enough in the primaries to formally debate each other, but for anyone dying to see that happen, there's a next best thing.
Comedians Anthony Atamanuik and James Adomian are on the road for all of February, bringing in-character, improvised debates between Trump and Sanders to topical comedy fans across the country. It's a political fantasy come to blustery and/or overly self-effacing life. And unlike the meticulously plotted out (but still way fallible) campaigns of most candidates, it came together kind of on the fly.
Last fall, Atamanuik was doing an impression of Donald Trump in New York, and Adomian was doing Bernie Sanders in L.A., independent of one another. Adomian heard about Atamanuik's Trump and was interested. Since the two had known each other for years through the Upright Citizens Brigade community, and had done a lot of shows together, when Adomian next went to New York, he suggested they collaborate on something. The resulting performance at UCB's Whiplash show in October had a deeper impact than either predicted.
Not a lot of prep went into that first configuration of the debate. The two met up on the day, talked through the basic beats of what they wanted to do, found someone to moderate, and then it was showtime. What first just seemed like an ephemeral funny moment, though, found an afterlife online when a video from the debate quickly earned hundreds of thousands of views.
The debate format turned out to be a fitting showcase for comics as good off the cuff as Adomian and Atamanuik, both of whom are seasoned improv performers. While candidates often tend to work some suspiciously rehearsed-sounding talking points in, debates are where they are most likely to talk freely and feed off of the moderator's questions like improv prompts.
"You can argue that Donald Trump is an improviser," Atamanuik says. "He often brags openly about how he never uses a script, that he just speaks from the top of his head, that he doesn’t have any talking points, though he clearly repeats concepts, but he does sort of fumble his way through something, trying to be spontaneous and funny. He's basically a wrestling villain."
"And Sanders is the wrestling saint," Adomian adds. "He's Hulk Hogan."
After the performance at Whiplash, the duo did a November follow-up show at the Bell House in Brooklyn. They added some friends on the bill to open up with stand-up, and kicked off the debate in character as Rachel Maddow (Atamanuik) and Chris Matthews (Adomian) doing news coverage on it. The crowd reaction was intense. The laughter seemed imbued with catharsis, as though the crowd was voting for the election with laughter. After that second show, the pair decided they had to take the show on the road.
"There was a lot of interest after the first two shows, and word spread quickly," Atamanuik says. "People started asking us 'Can you come here?' And the way it lined up with Manchester, New Hampshire, as one of the crowning points of the tour, we're getting to intersect with an actual debate."
Even though the pair is playing Vermont just before the New Hampshire debate, which is obviously big Bernie territory, Donald Trump will not be the Washington Generals of that show or any other on the tour. Both candidates end up looking ridiculous throughout, albeit different kinds of ridiculous, and the debate never devolves into an easy night of Trump-bashing.
"We’re both playing it to win," Adomian says. "And the argument would be that we both walk away believing we won."
Having no formal structure to the debate means no two shows in the tour will be quite the same. Both comedians have some standby lines and themes that are tested by now, but the two are traveling together, looking at newspapers each day, and plugging in the latest quotes and revelations. Meanwhile they're also refining the characters the more they do them.
"I think the key to Trump is pushing your little front teeth forward as far as possible without protracting your jaw," Atamanuik says. "And also having sort of a dropped face of disgust."
"What I love is Tony doesn't just play him as stupid and rich," Adomian adds. "He also does this thing where he's pretending to be generous and a conciliator bringing everyone together—all while he's saying these hateful, terrible things."
Because both performers share the similar political beliefs, they're motivations for portraying these characters in the debate tour are exact opposites of each other.
"I really love Bernie Sanders," Adomian says. "It's fun to make fun of him because he's kind of a funny guy, his personality and his demeanor are kind of shambling like a beloved college professor. But I really love what he stands for and I have for many years. I think his candidacy is inspiring and part of getting to do an impression of Bernie Sanders is getting to amplify his message from a comedic angle and i like that."
Atamanuik has some harsher words reserved for his own on-stage counterpart.
"Although I do believe Donald Trump is ignorantly well-meaning," he says, "I think he's a malevolent force that's uncorking the roiling white supremacist movement that's been alive for decades now beneath the skin of the United States. I think he's dangerous, and if there's anything I can do to make him look foolish or create any meme that harms his campaign in any way, I'm glad to do it."
It looks like the cathartic fantasy aspect of these shows isn't just for the audience.
Find the remaining tour dates below.
- 2/8 3S Artspace 7:30 p.m. – Portsmouth, NH
- 2/8 The Shaskeen 10 p.m. – Manchester, NH
- 2/10 Brighton Music Hall 8 p.m. – Boston
- 2/12 Highline Ballroom 8 p.m. – New York
- 2/15 World Café 8 p.m. – Philadelphia
- 2/18 Arlington Cinema Drafthouse 8 p.m. – Washington, D.C.
- 2/29 Paramount Theatre 8 p.m. – Austin